I’ve wanted to read a Sarah Waters novel for a while, so when The Little Stranger was chosen for my book group at work I was really pleased. I was promised a creepy old house, spooky goings on and shivers down my spine and I wasn’t disappointed, although the story was more than the sum of its parts.
The story begin with the impressions of protagonist and narrator, Doctor Faraday as a child taking in the glory of grand Hundreds Hall. Years later in the post-WW2 era, now an adult, he returns to the house at the request of the residents the Ayres family who inhabit the house which has fallen into disrepair and the family fortunes have dwindled. The Ayres are struggling to maintain the crumbling house while seemingly being unable to keep pace with a society that is changing around them. At the same time the house appears haunted by something sinister when strange events begin to occur.
The central theme of the book – the haunting, made for brilliant book group fodder (and reading) because Waters keeps it ambiguous and sows lots of little seeds which means that I came up with lots of theories as it went along. In some regards it reminded me a little of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw in the way that Waters inspires a vague, unsettling feeling as the book goes on, although in contrast to James, I felt I could actually develop quite a clear conviction about what might be happening which I found more satisfying.
I found the ‘horror’ in the book to be very slow-building. The book sets the scene in detail and you shouldn’t expect jumps on every page. Some members of the group found this to be quite frustrating but I felt that the overall impact was very effective as Waters really visualises the house and family members for you through the eyes of the doctor so that it’s like you are there! I made an effort, and I recommend you do if you choose this novel, to try to find relaxed moments in which to read chunks of it at once as you need to give yourself time to fully get involved.
The characters in the novel all have complex personalities, most notably the Doctor, whose narration allows us a window into the house. Having moved up from being the son of a servant at Hundreds Hall to being a doctor, pushed by his parents, he is in many ways a symbol of the way that class structure was changing in England at this time. However at the same time, he resists modernity with worries about what will happen when a National Health Service is introduced, and his desire to return to Hundreds Hall which is anything but progressive.
The Inhabitants of Hundreds Hall are Carolyn Ayres, a plain but wilful woman, her brother Roddie who is also the heir but somehow struggles with stepping up to the role, and Mrs Ayres the fading matriarch of the household. Together they make a sad but fascinating group who seem to be dwindling into obscurity along with Hundreds.
I was super-impressed with how Waters managed to bring together so many complex social and psychological themes, while writing descriptive but useful (not flowery) prose and also working these things into what I call a ‘proper story’. I don’t think that it will be everyone’s cup of tea, as it is a slow-burner and it’s not a straightforward ghost story but the suspense and action does escalate in the second half of the book. I loved this book and I will definitely be reading more Sarah Waters novels in future.
Have you read The Little Stranger, and if so what did you think?
What Sarah Waters novels have you read (if any)?